The Hard Sell

If, as writer David Gates says, "there is an expectation now that the writer's first effort must be their best or at least spectacular ... that you must cash in while you can," there's also an expectation that writers can no longer leave the business side of publishing to the business people. Stories are always circulating about agents and editors pressing authors -- even at their first meeting -- to provide detailed plans about how they will sell their book. Not all authors mind the hard sell, of course; if you've spent a long time writing a book and are proud of it, it only makes sense, they say, that you should play an active role in making certain that your book ends up in the hands of interested readers. But for every author who is an eager salesman, there's another who prefers to do things the way we sometimes think they used to be done: Writer finishes book, publisher prints it. No editorial meddling, no readings, no "publicity."

Regardless of whether it's more difficult now than it used to be to initiate a writing career, it's certainly a publishing climate that can seem daunting to a young, unpublished author who finds the words "auction," "agent," and "world rights" more than a little befuddling. Twenty-four-year-old Jonathan Saffron Foer's first novel Everything Is Illuminated was recently acquired by Houghton Mifflin editor Eric Chinski in the mid-six figures; editors from 12 houses vied over the course of a weeklong auction to purchase the book, a loosely autobiographical story in which an American author goes to Ukraine to search for the woman who is reputed to have saved his grandfather during World War II. "I just felt like his writing is so rare," Chinski says. One of the reasons for Foer's success (the main reason being the quality of his manuscript) is actually his "ignorance of what was going on," he says. "It very much came down to trusting the opinions of good friends," Foer told me several weeks after his novel was bought, adding that he is not a "business person." "I wouldn't even help the situation by involving myself more than was strictly necessary."

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  • Virgin Fiction

    First-time publication is like a cotillion for writers, Martin Wilson writes as he reviews five new first novels. And debut novelists are the gussied-up belles at the ball, with butterflies in their stomachs, dreaming of the glorious future that awaits them.

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